The Other Íslands: Fierce Weather And Fine Dining In The Faroes

The Other Íslands: Fierce Weather And Fine Dining In The Faroes

Photo by
Axel Sigurðarson

The Faroe Islands—an archipelago of eighteen rocky, mountainous isles that lie strewn in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—have an impeccable sense of drama. Look in any direction at almost any time and you’ll see a strangely poised slice of land jutting up from the water at an extreme angle, or a distant headland vanishing into the thick blanket of fog that often cloaks the country. The islands are the stark result of a turbulent volcanic history—if the landmass of Iceland is a teenager, having been born approximately 16-18 million years ago, the Faroe Islands are thought to be in their fifties.

We exit the tiny airport on Vágar island under spitting rain and low clouds. To the west, the serrated cliff of Tindhólmur stabs skyward from the waves at 45º, like the spiky spine of a fallen behemoth. A huge basalt arch and a towering vertical sea stack stand nearby. There’s no gentle introduction to the Faroes—it’s an immediately vivid, immersive environment.

Eerily familiar

Just north of the airport lies the hamlet of Gásadalur—a handful buildings standing huddled on a shelf between the mountains and the coastal cliffs. A river plunges straight off this narrow ledge and crashes down into the sea. In other countries, Mulafossur would be heralded by a visitor centre, but in the pleasingly untouched Faroes there’s just a gravel layby and a vague path trailing off towards the waterfall.

The village has a single recently opened café where we’re served skerpikjøt (“sharp meat”), a type of traditional wind-dried mutton that’s hung in a ventilated shed, or “hjallur,” for five to nine months. Served in thick slices on rye bread, its pungent aroma and overwhelming flavour are strong enough to bring tears to my eyes.

The taste stays with me for much of the drive to the capital city of Tórshavn, during which the Faroes start to seem eerily familiar. There are Bónus supermarkets, but they sell mostly Danish products (alongside hardfiskur and skýr); the road signs are almost identical to those in Iceland, but with small differences in illustrations and spellings, such as Skóli (“School”) becoming Skúli (a man’s name, in Icelandic). The landscape of winding fjords and vast mountains bears a striking similarity to the Eastfjords, but with endless small differences. When we arrive in Tórshavn and see a Nordic House building, a Smyril Line ferry terminal surrounded by stacked Eimskip containers, and a Faroese version of the late and lamented Reykjavík nightlife institution Sirkus, it feels a little like a surreal dream of an alternate Iceland.

Melting cathedrals

The next morning, after a ramble around the quaint harbour, colourful shops and turf houses of Tórshavn, we drive north, passing discrete fishing villages, single lane tunnels, and mountain passes. In the harbour town of Vestmanna, we board a small tour boat, chugging out into the fjord for a look at the uninhabitable mountains on the west coast of Streymoy.

“The mountains are natural sculptures, like melting cathedrals amidst the screeching, wheeling birds.”

The first stop is a small cove with a large freestanding sea stack. We reverse towards it amongst powerful, foamy waves, spinning suddenly behind the rocky column and emerging from the other side in an alarming piece of stunt driving.

Further out, the sea gets rough, and the boat pitches violently—Japanese tourists slither around on the deck, and stoic Danes cling to the railings grimly. The view is worth it: the western mountains are colossal natural sculptures, like melting Gaudi cathedrals cloaked in green grass, scored and pocked by the unforgiving weather amidst the screeching, wheeling seabirds.

The outback

Back on dry land, we head east to Klaksvík to meet hiking guide Pól Sundskarð, a retired extreme sportsman. We board a flatbed ferry to the narrow, mountainous island of Kalsoy, where we hike a barely visible sheep trail to the Kallur lighthouse. It’s another dramatic spot: several other islands are visible through the fog, and a dizzying cliff soars above our heads.

After a night at Hotel Klaksvík we head out to explore some of the smaller settlements of Eysturoy, starting with the charming fishing town of Fuglafjørður, and Gyógv, a picturesque village with an impressive basalt ravine. The historic hamlet of Saksun has a viewpoint down across an expansive grey beach with a bright blue lagoon, and the church’s turf roof ripples in the fierce wind. It’s an unspoiled view that evokes the power of the elements, the age of the land, and the precipitous nature of life on the Faroes.

Mouthfuls of nature

The finale is a meal at the revered Koks restaurant, which received its Michelin star earlier in 2017. In a smart, minimal dining room, slate grey plates are the earthy backdrop for an eighteen-course tasting menu that focuses on using seasonal local ingredients in an ingenious and artistic reinvention of traditional Faroese flavours.

The opener is a mahogany clam so rich in oil and subtle in flavour that it causes an involuntary shiver of pleasure. It’s followed in rapid succession by a profoundly smoked langoustine and a queen clam with smoked, frothy cod roe and crunchy peas. Next is a triathlon of fermented meat dishes: skerpikjøt, this time sliced prosciutto-thin to balance the flavour against the sweet rye bread, followed by a pungent ræst soup, then a challenging lamb tallow with cheese crackers.

“We’re treated to a series of dishes that are like edible sculptures of the surrounding habitat.”

After a rhubarb palate cleanser, we’re treated to a series of dishes that are like edible sculptures of the surrounding habitat: halibut studded with watercress, like a delicate wild plant; strips of oily skate interspersed with slices of starchy potato; a swirl of seared cabbage and sweet angelica; a meaty slab of salted cod, like a cracked white slate; a fishy fulmar served in a puddle of blood-red beetroot. One of the five desserts is a bowl of flowers and leaves introduced as “some things we found outside.” It’s a mouthful of fresh, natural flavours, and for the second time on the trip food brings tears to my eyes, albeit for different reasons from the skerpikjøt.

Koks is the meal of a lifetime, and an unforgettable conclusion. Their revelatory menu provides every bit as much insight into these islands as sailing the fjords, driving the roads, and hiking to ends of the remote and fascinating Faroes.

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